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College Football's Duopoly, Super Conferences, & a Shifting Landscape

The Big Ten and SEC are starting to look a lot more like the NFL, a change that is by design in the new and ever-changing world of college football



College football as we know it has forever changed. The sport was once reliant on regional matchups and rivalries over geography that spawned names and trophies for these games like Bedlam and the Paul Bunyan Trophy. Once upon a time, bowl games were must-see television in December. But those days are behind us now. As we enter an era of an expanded college football playoff system, NIL deals, de facto free agency via the transfer portal, and the erosion of the games middle class, the tenets of what the game was are a thing of the past. 


This coming college football season will be the first to feature two super-conferences: the Big 10 and SEC. The Big Ten has added a west coast imprint with USC, UCLA, Washington, and Oregon. The SEC, meanwhile, has added Oklahoma and Texas from the Big 12. The Big 10 now features eighteen teams in its membership while the SEC boasts sixteen teams. In the final top 25 of the season this past season, 14 of the teams that were ranked will play in one of the two conferences this coming season. It is becoming increasingly clear that these are the two entities that matter in college football, with the potential to become more like professional leagues. But is this shift good or bad for the overall state of college football?


All About the Matchups



If I told you on a given college football weekend that you could watch Oregon play Michigan, Oklahoma play Alabama, and Ohio State play USC you might be forgiven to think that these are bowl or playoff games late in the season. But the reality is that come this year, these will be conference games in the Big Ten and SEC. From an average viewer's perspective, this is a win. More high leverage matchups mean more important games with the country’s best players to be highlighted. It is also a win for ESPN and FOX Sports, the companies that will be broadcasting these games this fall.

 

College football is one of the few sports that we have in the United States that thrives off big brands. It is a sport without the illusion of parity. In the NFL, if a team from a small market like Jacksonville or Cincinnati was successful, that team would be celebrated. In the NBA, parity is also celebrated as healthy for the league (as we are seeing this season with the top teams in the Western Conference). College basketball's entire appeal for many people is predicated on the unpredictable nature of March Madness with huge upsets that elevate lesser-known schools like Butler, Wichita State, and Lehigh into the spotlight.


College football on the other hand, loves big brands. This past season, Michigan won the national championship and for many this felt like a restoration of order. Schools like Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, and others have dominated the landscape by being large brands that elevate past the competition with raw talent and resources. For a sport that is so captivated and enamored by these large brands, the emergence of two elite conferences creates the sort of matchups that we as a consuming public of the product wait all year for.




In a sense, this pooling of major schools into two major conferences is what most fans want from college football, as much as they may lament the unfairness of the entire system to schools like Washington State and Oregon State that were left out in the cold when the Pac 12 collapsed. So often in the early parts of a season when Alabama plays a school like Middle Tennessee State, fans question the point of scheduling such an inferior opponent. Some will often say that a big school is engaging in self-preservation to prevent an early season loss that could negatively affect their playoff standing. The rise of super conferences cuts many of these games and could eventually lead to the exclusion of non-conference games altogether. The path that we are heading towards could be one of a secondary professional league.


Going Pro



In any given year there are 1700 players that occupy a roster spot on an NFL team. Currently, there are 546 active players that attended an SEC school and 512 players that attended a Big Ten school. This means that the two conferences account for 1,076 active players, accounting for 63% of the talent pool of the entire league. That is a staggering number and one that is only likely to increase over time. These two conferences have become feeder leagues to the NFL, and the schools within the conference embrace this.


It is quite common for big time college football programs to use that path to the NFL as a recruiting tool. SMU built their infamous run of success in the 1980s by pitching the next step for players that they recruited. NFL alumni often meet potential recruits to sway them to commit to one school over the other. There are only a handful of teams that still compete on the highest level of college football that do not play in the Big Ten and SEC (Florida State, Clemson, and TCU for example), but the overwhelming majority are combined into two conferences.


It is only a matter of time before the top-level schools from other conferences like the Big 12 and ACC also migrate to the Big Ten and SEC just for the ability to attract players and remain viable. The college football playoff committee has explicitly said that strength of schedule factors into who makes the sports postseason tournament and who doesn’t, which means that schools that play in the two larger conferences immediately have an advantage over other schools that play in a weaker conference.


There was a time when the NCAA would claim that all its actions and motives were to preserve the institution of amateurism, that players were students first and athletes second. In today’s climate that has all shifted. Players are now signing name, image, & likeness (NIL) deals while they are in school to (rightfully) profit from their fame as notable college athletes. The transfer portal has become de facto free agency, with players often switching schools for better opportunity and more exposure to get a chance at being drafted. If this sounds a lot like NFL contracts and free agency, it's because that is exactly what it is; only the NFL has a salary cap and contract length agreements, while the college football world does not.


Using the Brand



Teams and mascots in college sports have some of the most recognizable brands out there. For many years in the 1990s the Georgetown Hoyas logo became synonymous with streetwear culture. The Michigan winged helmet, Ohio State buckeye patch, and Oregon’s uniform combinations have all become a part of pop culture, and for some people are more recognizable than the branding of some pro franchises. It also is becoming clear that the NCAA is behind the wheel of a runaway freight train that it does not know how to stop. There are scandals every season, violations that a school does not adhere to, that have become national storylines. This is because the rules that apply to Bowling Green are the same that apply to Ohio State, and that is a problem. These two schools are running at a completely different level in terms of stakes, capital, and talent.


A potential solution that may seem radical on its face is for these schools to license out their brand to NFL teams and to then use the Big Ten and SEC as a developmental league of sorts. Let’s say that LSU was the developmental team of the New Orleans Saints. If there was ever an NBA G-League-like dynamic in football, no team that is created would have the same sort of following that LSU does in the state of Louisiana. The NFL franchise would simply take over the operations of the LSU football program, sign players to contracts under a developmental salary cap, and then pay the school for the privilege of using its brand and playing in its stadium.


This ensures that players are still compensated, the schools are profiting, and fans still get to root for their favorite college team. The days of the regional rivalry and the feel-good stories of college football feel like a relic of the past at larger schools. These types of dynamics are still alive and well in conferences like the MAC and Sun Belt, but the Big Ten and SEC shed them long ago. These are professional leagues now, and trying to suggest otherwise would be foolish. We are on a path that is leading us to a separate league of big-time college football with a model that mimics the NFL.


Some may wonder if this ruins the sanctity and pageantry of college football. The old way of things was one that reflected the world that we lived in before the internet made everything and everyone so accessible. The world is smaller now thanks to an overflow of information and the ability to reach virtually anyone through social media. In that former landscape, college football thrived and fit perfectly. In this current climate, however, things have changed, and the structure of college football must change with it. Many will resist this inevitable change in favor of the traditions of old, but that tune will change when the slates of marquis matchups mimic that of an NFL Sunday.




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